Avoid the humdrum

Following a fairly unusual session at a highly unusual pub, Zak wrote:

If I can go into a pub in small town in Yorkshire and buy these beers, are they in any way elitist? They may be imported, out-there, flavour of the moment and expensive (in relative terms, even at The Grove) but does that make them elitist? Or is elitism just another word for expensive?

I think this is asking the wrong question, or at least starting the argument too late. Real ale may be a living thing, but it doesn’t have feelings – beer can’t be ‘elitist’ any more than it can be intelligent, left-wing or prone to depression. Obviously what Zak meant by ‘elitist beer’ is ‘beer which is designed for elitists and shows it’, but that begs the question of who these elitists are.

So what is elitism in beer-appreciation? A while ago in a thread from hell on BeerAdvocate, I advanced the argument that the term “real ale” isn’t inherently elitist:

it may be eccentric, it may even be reactionary, but it’s basically just saying “let’s everyone do it the way they used to, because it was better”

This position did not meet with universal approval:

seems like the definition of elitism to label all other beers as “fake, phoney, ersatz, imitation.”

Hmm. So is that the definition of elitism – saying “the thing I like is the real thing”? And if not, what is?

Proposition 1: Saying “this beer is good” is not elitist.
Anyone who doesn’t agree with that one isn’t going to feel very comfortable with the beer blogosphere, or other people. Moving on:

Proposition 2: Saying “this beer is better than that beer” is not elitist.
I suppose there is an argument (at this point you can probably hear me bending over backwards to be fair) that it would be arrogant to say that a beer I happen to like is better than a beer I don’t like. It’s not an argument I share. I don’t think you can like beer (or anything else, really) without at some point thinking “now that’s good!“; it’s even possible to recognise that a beer you don’t particularly like is a good piece of work. (I’m happy to agree with the general opinion that Jaipur is a very fine beer. I’d also be happy never to drink it again.)

Now it starts to get a bit more controversial.

Proposition 3: Saying “this beer which I’ve had and you haven’t is better than that beer which you’ve had” is not elitist.
It can’t be, logically – otherwise it would be an act of elitism to introduce someone to a new beer. I think this gets confused in people’s minds with a slightly different statement:

Proposition 4: Saying “this beer which I can get and you can’t is better than that beer which you can get“… may or may not be elitist.
This is a difficult one. The key question is, why can’t ‘you’ get it? If the answer is, because you’re not in Huddersfield (or Helston, or St Helier) then I’m with Zak – Huddersfieldism is not elitism. I mean, there is no conceivable elite whose membership is defined by commuting distance from Huddersfield (I’m fairly sure about this one). Going back to BeerAdvocate, banging on about the real-ness of cask ale to a bunch of American beer geeks with no way of experiencing the difference might not have been sensitive or tactful, but it wasn’t elitism; just Huddersfieldism on a larger scale.

If the answer is, because you haven’t got a spare £350 to spend on 24 bottles of beer, the relevant definition of ‘elite’ seems a bit more obvious. I think I disagree with Zak on this point – I think money does make a difference. There is a kind of rough-and-ready elitism which is defined by having cash to burn and moving in circles where everyone else does too. An example would be the slighting reference in the Guardian‘s listings section a while back to “the kind of people who buy their clothes from Next”. (Me, I only go to Next when I’m feeling flush.)

But I’m more interested in a third possible answer, which I think gets us closer to a definition of beer elitism. What if the reason why you’ll never taste Brew X is that it costs a tenner a bottle, and you just wouldn’t dream of blowing that kind of money on a bottle of beer, even if you had the money lying around? Or what if it’s a short-run bottling which was consumed in its entirety at a beer writers’ dinner (invitation only naturellement)? I think I’m on stronger ground here:

Proposition 5: Saying “this beer which I can get and you can’t because of who I am is better than that beer which people like you can get” is elitist.

And the reason it’s elitist is that it’s not about the beer or even the price of the beer: it’s about the people. Elitism is fundamentally about saying “we’re better than you”:

Proposition 6: Saying “this beer which I like because of who I am is better than that beer which people like you like” is elitist.

And this attitude has got nothing to do with price or availability; elitists often find it satisfying to demonstrate that they are different from the rest of us through the amount they spend on their passion, but the elitism comes first. You can have a passion for making good stuff available to everyone who wants it and still end up selling at the high end (or on Guernsey). (I don’t think of Dave as an elitist, for example, despite his keen awareness of who’s got money to spend.) On the other hand, you can be an obnoxiously blatant elitist, broadcasting your contempt for the common herd, and still put affordable beer on supermarket shelves; why you would want to do this I’m not quite sure, but I know that it can be done. Elitism is quite compatible with mass appeal: all you need to do is make everyone feel like they’re better than the common herd. At every university in the country there’s a group of first-year students who are dedicated to experiencing the hottest curry, the best drugs, the most alcohol, and think the rest of their year are wusses – and there are a lot of universities in the country.

So was Zak drinking ‘elitist beer’? I’m not sure. The Mikkeller thing with all the IBUs certainly sounds like something brewed for a very specific market – a kind of wannabe-connoisseur crowd, lacking the palate or experience of genuine connoisseurs but filling the gap with a juvenile passion for extremes (not unlike those first-year curry warriors). So that one sounds a bit on the elitist side; the others don’t, particularly. (I do envy Zak the Celebrator – but that’s Huddersfieldism rather than elitism.)

I intend to drink some good beer on Thursday evening, but it won’t be uniquely good beer – beer like nobody else is drinking for miles around – and I’d be worried if it was. I’m not interested in peak beer experiences nobody can share but equally dedicated geeks. More good ale, everywhere, for everyone!

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4 Comments

  1. Posted 19 January, 2011 at 9:39 am | Permalink | Reply

    You think too hard mate. You need a few cans of Carling.

  2. Posted 19 January, 2011 at 1:43 pm | Permalink | Reply

    Propositions 1 to 4 should be prefixed with “I think”, or “In my opinion” to be sure they are not interpreted as elitist, or ill-mannered at least :)

    Elitism is a state of mind in the individual consumer anyway.

  3. Posted 22 January, 2011 at 8:16 pm | Permalink | Reply

    I agree with pretty much all of what you’ve said there.

    The attitude that you haven’t touched on (unless I’ve misread your points, and heaven knows I have a tendency to do that) is one that will ONLY drink “craft beer”.

    At the White Horse Old Ales festival in November, I asked a few people why it was so important to convert people to the cause of craft beer. Nobody could really answer that one. My take on it is that it’s important to let people know about the choice that there is out there, and in my experience, at least half the people who I’ve introduced “craft” beer to have found it tasty and worth the extra cost, and will from time to time switch from drinking “industrial” (Carling, Fosters, Kronenbourg) or “premium industrial” (Peroni, Stella, Pilsner Urquell) to drinking Sierra Nevada Pale Ale or BrewDog Trashy Blonde. Maybe they only do it when I’m around, I don’t know, but I think it’s like giving someone some music you think they might like – it’s a sharing of aesthetics.

    In another way, it’s like what chef/author Anthony Bourdain refers to as the myth of global organic food. Organic food is great for and elite who care about such things, and who want it, but it’s yet to be shown to be demonstrably better for you (or less bad for you) that ‘non-organic’ (or whatever the correct term is). It’s ludicrous to think that interest organic food (or indeed “craft beer”) will grow and grow – it had a finite pool of people with the money and interest in it to sustain it. But I do think that “craft beer” has more growth in it than the organic food movement does.

    • Phil
      Posted 23 January, 2011 at 9:53 pm | Permalink | Reply

      Not sure if I agree with you or not (I genuinely dislike the term “craft beer” and never use it unless I have to, which doesn’t help). If you’re talking about people who will only drink fashionable micro-brews and rarities, they may be elitists or they may simply be tickers. Either way they’re probably best ignored.

      Perhaps it’s my age, but I don’t think of real ale as a gourmet product in any way at all – CAMRA has always been (at least in my mind) a campaign to bring back real ale everywhere. As far as I’m concerned cask beer is, all other things being equal, a better version of the same thing: any cask- or bottle-conditioned beer has certain good qualities which no keg beer has. If this is true, an interesting keg beer will still beat a boring cask beer, but the live version of beer X will always be better than the non-live version of the same beer – and in my experience this has always been the case. I’m not enough of an evangelist to push real ale on people drinking lager or keg, but if I did it would be because I think they’re missing out: even the best keg beer isn’t as good as a good real ale.

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